Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

I liked it a great deal.  I have enough bad things in my past to identify a little, and enough Scots-Irish in me to wonder about the genetics. He gives us a lot of what it's like to grow up among violent, clannish hillbillies, even when they have transplanted. His description of being a country mouse at formal dinners at Yale Law School are amusing, as is the suspicions-confirmed description of how networks mean all among the rich and powerful.

One of his main points is that even in terrible situations growing up, having just a few people care about you might be enough.  This might be true.  We certainly want it to be true. Vance looks at his own trajectory and concludes it was a near thing, and the absence of any of a short-list of relatives who were good to him might have been enough that he would have sunk beneath the waves. He wonders about the genetics of it all at the edges of his musings - why his mother collapsed under the weight of her parents' violence while her brother and sister muddled through and had decent lives; whether he may have inherited some worrisome weaknesses of hers - but in the end comes to mostly "nurture" conclusions about what happened in his own life.

As do we all.  We can only see the environmental experience of our own lives, we can't see the genes. In a humorous irony, we are genetically programmed as a species to create a narrative from the materials around us.  What we see becomes the basis for our story, even when it isn't really so.  I don't mean to dismiss environmental aspects entirely.  It can't be good to get beaten up, and it can't be good to be always worried about getting beat up. Expectations may have some effect simply because we all respond to incentives and disincentives. But these aren't clean measures.  The person who beats you may have also given you their violence genes; the person who has high-expectations for you may also have given you their high-expectations/striving genes. In a larger culture this may be magnified as it is spread across anyone else your mother might marry or might be part of your peer group. 

Cultures that are merely violent may not thrive all that well; certainly not in situations where they have to interact with other groups for trade.  There has to be some ability for the group to put violence under discipline, or in a context, so that everyone doesn't just kill each other. Jim Webb's Born Fighting captures how this group of Scots-Irish have won America's wars. But Appalachian violence may not be entirely cultural and accidental.  It might also distill as the less-violent move out,  marry out, or find disciplines of sports or military. Vance makes reference late to intervening earlier with kids "raised by wolves."  Government offering them college money looks good for elections, but by that time it is way to late for many. The trouble is that earlier and earlier interventions also don't seem to bear much fruit either. Maybe at the extremes.

He mentions that even though he wasn't often studying, the stability of living with his grandmother allows him to "ace his SAT's." Vance also notes that his mother was salutatorian of her high-school class, though she threw it all away with drug addiction and terrible men later.  Those rather say "genetics" in bold letters. At the margins, being too drug-addled to show up for the test keeps you from acing anything, and fearing getting beaten might decrease your focus enough to miss some questions. Yet mostly, no.


Tony Lawless said...

I also read it last week. Enjoyed it very much as the first PhD in my family. I am now reading Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray. I would recommend this as a follow-up.

Donna B. said...

I've ordered the book and I think I must read it before I comment much. However, I don't think I need to read the book to wonder if you aren't giving too much "credit" to genetics in regards to violence and high expectations. For instance, these are not mutually exclusive. And genetics isn't that clear cut -- it's much messier. If it weren't, we'd not be here.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

My experience is that most people give almost no credit to genetics in everyday conversation, the exceptions being musical and artistic ability. Even athletics, which is enormously genetics dependent, keeps its focus on grit, practice, good coaching and the like, because that's what we see, and what the athlete experiences.

If you bring it up, people will allow that "yeah, those kids were smart right out of the gate and probably would have done well with pretty much any parents." But they don't think of it on their own.

There may be genes for violence (two hot ones identified recently) that are activated by violence - which is evolutionarily efficient, when you think about it. Not there unless you need it. But generally people only mention environment when talking about, and especially researching violence. In the 60's and 70's, that was assumed in all my social science courses and everything you might read in a magazine.

RichardJohnson said...

I will be reading Hillbilly Elegy in a book club later this year. The nature-nurture argument is complex. From my family, I think of one of my grandfathers,an IA teacher, who built and designed a wooden house trailer back in the '30s. For the time, that was fairly cutting edge. He impressed one of my cousins by taking down a barn using an automobile with block and tackle. That also gives me the impression that had my grandfather attended a college with an engineering program instead of a normal school, he would have made a good engineer.Of his seven grandchildren, three got engineering degrees. That suggests to me a genetic connection. Of the 3 grandchildren that became engineers, only one lived near the grandparents- for his first 5 years. There may have been some nurture involved here, as I am told that my grandfather gave my cousin clocks to take apart and reassemble. I believe these were mechanical clocks.

While I also have Scots-Irish ancestry that AVI mentions with regard to the book, my British ancestors spanned the four groups of Albion's seed. The New England ancestors turned Quaker and left Massachusetts for Pennsylvania shortly after William Penn founded the colony. When I think of Scots-Irish, I think of Prohibition and the Celtic tendency towards hard drinking.

Christopher B said...

Culture = People = Genetics. Untangling what the influences are is often a matter of perception.

AVI - My experience is that most people give almost no credit to genetics in everyday conversation...

While they don't necessarily give overt credit to genetics, I find that people almost always express opinions as if culture were substantially genetically inherited, especially if certain cultural traits reflect badly on groups they don't like much, right up to the point that genetically determined culture comes in conflict with their beliefs about why other culturally distinct groups act the way they do.

jaed said...

keeps its focus on grit, practice, good coaching and the like, because that's what we see, and what the athlete experiences

It's also the part the athlete (or student, or person) controls and can potentially change. (I might add that it's also the part that can be seen—in the current state of the art, we can make guesses about genetics based on relatives' performance, etc. but can't really say what your genetic IQ or athletic potential is.

It occurs to me that ignoring genetics and pretending that it's all nurture might be a highly adaptive attitude for parents and children. It encourages proactivity in child-raising and personal effort, because by ignoring genetics, it puts all the emphasis on those things. And since those are the parts of the picture that can be improved by individual effort, it ensures that each person reaches his or her potential (assuming everyone does do their part in practicing, good coaching, reading to a child, and so on and so forth). It's the strategy that provides the optimal result, even though it's based on an untrue assumption.

Donna B. said...

I'm not too far into the book yet, but far enough to know that possibly what you're referring to as "violence" is what I refer to as "just plain meanness". Perhaps there isn't a huge difference. My paternal grandmother is where most of the Scots-Irish comes from - and like Mamaw in the book, nobody messed with her. It's her family that a big chunk of the meanness traces to also.

As for lack of credit given to genetics in general -- not my experience in my family. And both sides qualify as hillbilly, redneck, or white trash, or whatever -- just not predominately Scots-Irish, though they lived in the same areas after 1800. It's discussed with regard to alcoholism, heart disease, diabetes, good looks (never ugliness - we just wonder how in the world that could have happened), and, of course, just plain meanness.

Grim said...

It occurs to me that ignoring genetics and pretending that it's all nurture might be a highly adaptive attitude for parents and children.

So... it's probably genetic? :)